Think of Lord Ayyappa, and the only name that rushes into everyones' mind is Sabarimala. I have astonishingly discovered that many people in kerala do not even know about the other three (important) temples that have Lord Ayyappa as the diety. The other abodes are
Kulathupuzha, Aryankavu and Achankovil.
Kulathupuzha, Aryankavu and Achankovil.
All the four temples lie in the southern part of Kerala-The land of lakes, paddy fields, rivers mountains, forests- everything to call it the "God's Own Country". And all these temples lie at the foothills of the Western Ghats. One can visit all these temples in one day. But only according to a pre-planned schedule. The reason being the long hill climb at Sabarimala which takes hours.
I'll start with the speciality of each temple. Even if Lord Ayyappa was brought up at Pandalam, these places deserve special importance in the life of Ayyappan. He has exhibited miracles many a time at these places.
In Kulathupuzha, he is worshipped in the form of a little boy. In Aryankavu he resides as a teenager warrior, In Achankoil he is with his two wives (Purna & Pushkala) and at Sabarimala as a Sanyasin.
When I start from my home town Thiruvananthapuram, I advance North-West along Nedumancaud, Palode route. The first stop would be Kulathupuzha and is by the side of the main road. It lies to the right side as we go North, and one has to cross a narrow bridge across the river. Ladies are allowed here from the ages 10-60. One of the main offerings here is to feed the fishes in the river. It is said that Ayyappan considers them as his children.
Now continuing the journey North, we'll pass through the Thenmala Eco Tourism area. The road actually leads to the NH 208 connecting Kollam City with Thirunelveli City. Take a right from Thenmala to advance towards Aryankavu.
Just before the Kerala-Tamilnadu border we'll find Aryankavu Temple entrance by the right side of the road. Decend the steps to the temple. Ladies of ages 10-60 are not allowed inside. As I said, Ayyappa resides here as a teenager armed with weapons. A young warrior who exhibited his capabilites which were way ahead in his age.
Now the journey to Achan kovil is not a straight path. There are two routes- One starting from "Shenkottai" in Tamilnadu and another from "Aalimukku" near Punalur. The latter takes us through private plantations and the road is not fine most of the year round. The former one is maintained up to a Kerala-Tamilnadu check post by the TN government. Choosing the former one is better to save time and the automotive suspension.
On the way, we'll encounter 11 hairpin bends...6 uphill and 5 downhill after passing through a tamil agricultural village. The road is much narrow and only wide enough for a bus to pass through. On the way there is a place known as Kottaivasal. An idol of Lord Ganesha is kept there and travellers won't forget to give offerings at the temple while climbing uphill.
As I mentioned earlier, the diety is in the form of Dharma Sasthaavu, who resides there as a king with two wives. The history of this temple dates back centuries. Numerous stories are associated with this temple. The group of small temples that we find opposite to the Sastha temple are loyal disciples of sashtavu and all the dieties found there are linked to Sasthavu in some way. A detailed description of this temple and the stories linked with it are given in the book "Iytheehyamaala" by Kottaarathil Shangunni.
If we want to proceed further towards Sabarimala from this point, we should take the road to Punalur which takes us through some private plantation roads. Then we can advance towards Sabarimala.
Sabarimala, being a major piligrim center in Kerala, is much important to the Kerala Govt. too. Therefore the roads to Sabarimala are always fine. The temple has to open on the 1st day of every malayalam month. One can reach up to pampa by wheels. Then from the base point we start climbing up hill and walk the 4 km journey upto sannidhanam bare foot. The 4 hills we need to climb are karimala, neelimala, appachimedu and saramkuthi. The path through saramkuthi is used only during season time. The rest of the time piligrims use an alternate path built by Subramaniam Trust for carrying construcion materials and other goods by tractor upto sannidhanam.
There are 18 steps to climb upto the temple. At the top we find the diety Lord ayyappa in his sanyasin form. Down below the steps we find a "Vavar nada" where Vavar- a king who was an Islam and a very close friend of Lord Ayyappa. There is also a Vavar Mosque at Erumeli- another place from which devotees start up hill climb. In all the ayyappa temples we find Karuppswami who was a friend of Lord Ayyappa and Karuppayi amma his consort.
Festivity time in Sabarimala is during November-January. It is in January when Maraka vilakku and Makara samkramana pooja are conduted.
I have heard about a fifth important Ayyappa temple "Kanthamala". But I'm not aware of its existence or location.